Eugene Sussel's 'Kooky collection is worth millions POT of GOLD

January 27, 1995|By Michael James | Michael James,Sun Staff Writer

The vast collection Eugene Sussel amassed during his singular career as an art dealer turns out to be worth millions.

He collected some 250,000 pieces in six decades and stashed them away in warehouses -- everything from paintings valued at nearly three-quarters of a million dollars to Chinese brass candlesticks worth $5.

Yesterday, as a Timonium auction house sold off some 500 of his Oriental pieces, art collectors reminisced about one of the most bizarre art dealers they had ever known.

His widow, Charlene, is finally selling Mr. Sussel's collection. It has taken the five years since his death for the artwork in his warehouse -- originally in Pennsylvania and now in Southwest Baltimore -- to be inventoried and appraised.

"There are just piles and piles. More than you can imagine," said Richard Hall, a manager of Richard Opfer auctioneering, which already has had 13 auctions and is scarcely halfway through selling the Sussel collection.

Mr. Sussel had more passion for buying art than selling it, said Donald Webster, president of C. G. Sloan & Co. Inc., an auction house in Rockville.

"He was manic. He'd buy all these great things, put them in a warehouse, and forget about them," said Mr. Webster, who attended yesterday's sale. "Gene would buy it, put it away, and go look for something else to buy. He only sold just enough so he could go buy something else."

Mr. Webster added, "The rest he saved. He would say, 'Someday I'll sell it.' But that day never came."

At least not while he was alive.

Yesterday, dozens of art collectors from around the Mid-Atlantic region sifted through some of the more obscure pieces of Mr. Sussel's collection, including Tibetan prayer wheels, green stone urns, bamboo stem vases and an Indonesian betel-nut cutter.

In previous auctions, tens of thousands of other items have been sold from his collections of paintings, books, vintage clothing, dolls, antique furniture, paperweights, pewter, glass pottery, cigarette lighters and umbrellas, to name a few.

Many of the items were damaged after having been left neglected in his Reading, Pa., warehouse, where in some cases they collected mold for decades. A fire once damaged the building, and another time the roof partially collapsed, according to Mr. Sussel's friends and family.

"It's too bad. A lot of things you see here today could have been worth four, five, even 10 times what they are," said David Kenny, an Oriental art dealer from Rockville who inspected a bronze figurine at the Timonium show.

"He was always more interested in what he would find tomorrow that what he found yesterday," said Charlene Sussel, his wife of 10 years. "He really wasn't concerned about the things he bought. He would lose the keys to the warehouse."

Mr. Sussel was 76 when he died in 1989. The son of esteemed Philadelphia antiquarian Arthur J. Sussel, Eugene Sussel made his living as an art dealer

but, by all accounts, lived modestly and spent most of his money on his collection.

As his father did, Mr. Sussel ran an antique shop in Philadelphia but he decided to move to Maryland about 15 years ago after meeting his wife, a glass collector from Montgomery County. They settled in Garrett Park and opened an antique shop at the historic Savage Mill in Howard County.

Mr. Sussel's friends affectionately called him "Kooky" because of his pack-rat nature, as well as for his tenaciousness during bidding at auctions. He took pride in outbidding any competitor, saying he preferred "getting the goods to selling them."

But along the way, he made what proved to be shrewd acquisitions.

Large auction houses sold several pricey paintings he owned -- and which fortunately did not suffer the damage that many of his pieces did in the warehouses.

Among them was "Peaceable Kingdom" by Edward Hicks, which sold for $440,000, and "The Deliverance of St. Peter," by Bernardo Strozzi, which went for $250,000, according to auctioneers.

One painting, called "Five O'Clock Tea" by American painter Julius Stewart, sold for $770,000 and was regarded as one of Mr. Sussel's most intuitive purchases. He bought the painting at least two decades ago and stored it on the ground floor of the Pennsylvania warehouse.

That, as it turns out, preserved an extremely valuable painting, since the third floor of that warehouse was beset by fire and water damage in later years.

"Back then, other people didn't think anything of Julius Stuart, but Kooky saw something in it," said Mr. Webster, of Sloan's auction house. "He bought it and put it away -- fortunately, on the first floor and not the third."

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